The Romance of Revelation

Revelation 13 of 16


We’re going to be
skimming through three chapters today:
Revelation 17, 18, and 19.

I was thinking about it this week:
it’s funny that as scary and mysterious and intimidating
as the last book of the Bible is to all of us,

it’s actually telling a very simple story.

The story of God saving the world.

Peek-a-boo!—that’s what God is like.

That’s what God has done in Jesus
and that’s what God will do in the future.

God saves.

(That’s what the name “Jesus” literally means…
“God saves”… so this shouldn’t be any surprise.)

Revelation tells the story
of God saving the world.

This story seems like an independent arthouse film sometimes—

what with its proclivity for strange images
and an unconventional plot structure.

This story seems like a summer action movie sometimes—
especially when John is or describing God’s love in action
and borrowing from the plagues of Egypt

There have been moments when this story of God saving the world
has felt like a nerve-wracking thriller (what will John see next?)
or a Saturday morning cartoon (that Roadrunner always gets away),

but I think in Revelation 17, 18, and 19
and right through the rest of the book
it becomes really clear—really obvious
what kind of story Revelation is:

Revelation is a romance.

That’s what the orchestra has been preparing for
That’s what Father, Son, and Holy Spirt is like
this whole story is a romance.

God is a Romantic.

God has rescued and is rescuing and will rescue
his bride from everything that threatens her.

God is rescuing his bride

from her own stupid, sinful decisions,
from her own rebellious habits and attitudes,
from all the monsters and enemies that want her destroyed,
from even the greatest enemy of them all—from Death itself.

God is rescuing his bride.

It’s got its artsy moments and its action scenes
and its share of thrills and silly cartoons,
but at its heart…

Revelation is a romance
the Romance behind all romances.

Revelation is what every single one of our hearts ache for,
and that we almost never talk about

because it’s too deep of a longing.

It’s a longing we’re afraid
maybe it’s too good to be true.

But the Church, my friends, has good news
for those who long for the Lover of the Universe
to sweep us up in his divine embrace:

Our hearts are not delusional.

Love is coming for us.
Love is coming for this world.

There will be a happy ending
for those longing for Love.

With that, let’s dive into the text:

(Rev 17.1-6) One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits by many waters. With her the kings of the earth committed adultery, and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.”

Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. The name written on her forehead was a mystery:

babylon the great
the mother of prostitutes
and of the abominations of the earth.

I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus.

A frightful image.

A woman of ill repute (v3)—in the desert
sitting on a great red monster
a terrible scarlet beast.

This beast seems to be the same beast
that rose up the sea in chapter 13.

This beast seems to still be
representing the same thing
right here
that it was back there:

the conquering, coercive power
of the Human Empire (in particular, the Roman Empire).

Humans ruling other humans
through the power of armies and violence
or economic force and cultural peer pressure.

And this Woman—this Lady Babylon
is sitting high and proud on the beast.

There are three questions
that arise pretty quickly this morning:

[slide #1]
Who is this lady?
What does this have to do with romance?
What does this have to do with any of us?

Let’s answer those questions
in fairly quick succession
and that will lead us to the table.

John address that first question
almost immediately:

(end-of-v6) When I saw her, I was greatly astonished. Then the angel said to me: “Why are you astonished? I will explain to you the mystery of the woman and of the beast she rides, which has the seven heads and ten horns.

How thoughtful of you, John.

I’m confident that your explanation will be
linear, straightforward, and fairly easy-to-follow.

(v8) The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and yet will come up out of the Abyss and go to its destruction. The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast, because it once was, now is not, and yet will come.

Ok… I think I follow so far.

This scarlet beast that rose out of the sea
what with its seven heads and ten horns
is some kind of counterfeit or parody of real power.

You’re talking about a mockery or a knock-off
of the self-giving God revealed in Jesus:
“the one who is, and who was, and who is to come1.” (1.4, 8)

“Whatever else this beast is
it’s a cheap knock-offa counterfeit.

“And maybe this woman is a counterfeit too.

“Alright. That took a little stretching,
but I think I’m tracking with you, John.”

(v9-14) “This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits. They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for only a little while. The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king. He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction.

“The ten horns you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but who for one hour will receive authority as kings along with the beast. They have one purpose and will give their power and authority to the beast. They will wage war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will triumph over them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings—and with him will be his called, chosen and faithful followers.”

“Well, John, you lost us. We’re sorry.

It’s probably the distance—
the cultural distance or time distance or some kind of distance,
but we don’t know what you’re talking about.”

It’s not just us either.

Scholars don’t know what to do
with these verses either.

They’ll never tell you that,
but they’re all talking about “theories.”

There’s all kinds theories—all kind of debate—about these verses:

using them to try to decipher when Revelation was written
(v10: five kings have fallen, one is, the other is yet to come)

or who the Antichrist will one day be and what he’ll be like
(v11: the beast is “an eight king” who somehow “belongs to the seven”)

or how an Antichrist might one day conquer the world
(v12: using ten horns—or ten kings—who rule for “one hour”)

—and (personally) I don’t really find any of those debates helpful.

Don’t get me wrong,
some of these theories are really interesting.

A lot of scholars read these verses
through a widespread urban legend of the day

that the Hitler of the day—Caesar Nerowould soon return
with kings from Parthia in the East to conquer the world.

It was a super popular, super spooky campfire story
that either Nero wasn’t really dead
or Nero would come back from the dead.

Maybe John is tapping into that story,
to talk about events coming at the end of the world…

I don’t know.

Literally—I do not know.
Nobody does.

So as interesting as theories and debates may be,
I tend to gravitate away from theories 
and more towards firm footing.

What is God speaking to the Church through these chapters?
Is there anything we can say with confidence about these verses?

We’re on a little firmer footing here
because John tells us (v9) that this WomanLady Babylon
sits on seven hills.

[slide #2]
That’s almost certainly a reference to
the seven hills of the city of Rome.

Maybe this Woman is something like “the great city”
that just collapsed a handful of verses ago (16.19)
at the end of the seven bowls,

Maybe John is giving us
a different viewanother perspective
on that same reality.

On how all violent Empires will fall apart
will collapseat the end of history
and even within history.

Maybe this Woman is that “great city” that falls apart.

(v15-18) Then the angel said to me, “The waters you saw, where the prostitute sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations and languages. The beast and the ten horns you saw will hate the prostitute. They will bring her to ruin and leave her naked; they will eat her flesh and burn her with fire. For God has put it into their hearts to accomplish his purpose by agreeing to hand over to the beast their royal authority, until God’s words are fulfilled. The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.”

[slide #3]
Well what do you know?
… the answer to our first question.

This woman sitting on the beast IS “the great city.”

A city like Rome
sitting on its seven hills.

John is careful never to call this Lady “Rome”
because—just like the number of the beast, 666—
he’s talking about something bigger than
one city or one king or one empire.

Any kind of city or system
that relies on violence or economic coercion
to rule the world.

Whether it’s armies from ancient Rome
or a colonialism from London
or market manipulation from New York
or drones strikes from Washington D.C..

If you’re trying to rule the world by force,
you’re going to fail.

The “great city” is going to collapse.

Babylon is already fallen,
whether you know it or not.

Any life—any system—any “city”
that opposes the good and loving purposes of God—
is ALREADY fallen.

It’s ALREADY doomed to failure.

The violence you rely on—the beast you ride on
is eventually going to eat you alive.

Humans ruling other humans
through the power of armies and violence
or economic force and cultural peer pressure—
it’s never going to work.

That’s what’s described here in verse 16—
in graphic, horrible language.

The Lady will be eaten by the Beast.2

Every “Great City” of humankind built on violence and power
winds up consumed that violence and power.

And then what we find
in chapter 18 through the beginning of chapter 19
is essentially two groups of people reacting
to this total collapse
of all human power systems.

The announcement is made clearly:
life in opposition to God IS collapsing
Babylon IS fallen (18.1-3).

At one point at the end of chapter 18,
an angel throws a giant rock—a millstone
into the sea with a giant splash (18.21) and declares:

“Babylon is fallen like this;
with this kind of ferocity and finality, Babylon is fallen
And just like that rock, it’s never coming back.”

The same proclamation evokes
two dramatically different responses
from people.

It’s the same reality—the same judgement
but it provokes two wildly different reactions.

We get both singing, celebrating,
and the most primal sort of hallelujah imaginable,

and also lamenting, wailing,
weeping and gnashing of teeth,

Everyone who loved the old system—
who didn’t care about hurting people for a profit3

actually despair the fall of Lady Babylon.

In chapter 18 we find three laments:
the corrupt ruling class (“the kings of the earth,” v9-10),
the profit-driven businessmen (“the merchants of the earth,” v11-17),
and all the heartless middlemen (“the sea captains,” v17-20)

they all find a new world of love
as a reason to despair.

But then as we move into chapter 19
we also find three celebrations:

The masses in heaven are in an uproar (19.1-3),

the mysterious beings backstage in the universe are singing (19.4-5),
some great multitude (maybe on the earth) shouts for joy (19.6-8)

We could maybe pick up reading the text with that last one:

(19.6-16) Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting:

    For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and be glad
    and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
    and his bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean,
    was given her to wear.”
(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.)

Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” And he added, “These are the true words of God.”

At this I fell at his feet to worship him. But he said to me, “Don’t do that! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers and sisters who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For it is the Spirit of prophecy who bears testimony to Jesus.”

I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written:

king of kings and lord of lords.

This is where the great Romance becomes clear:

John envisions Jesus—
the unstoppable, all-powerful Jesus from chapter 1
as tearing through the heavens (19.11)
with the armies of heaven following him (19.14).

It’s like a vision of the future
where Jesus is finally bringing
his full presence and full life
into the world.

Image piles on top of image,
piles on top of hope:

Jesus here to wage war rightly—with justice (v11)
that is, he’s arriving to end all war.4

Jesus arriving for battle already covered in blood (v13)
but that’s because he’s shed his own.5

He doesn’t conquer with violence or a literal sword (v15)—
his whisper of love conquers the world.

That’s the kind of King of kings (v16)
that Jesus is.

The King who loves…who loves to the point of death.

That’s what true power—what true authority
what true lordship and kingship looks like.

True Lordship is Love.
True Kingship is Cross-shaped.

And why is Jesus arriving?

Why is Jesus tearing through the heavens and riding to earth?

Well, according to verse 9 of chapter 19.

Jesus is arriving as the Lover of lovers
as the world’s True Lover.

Jesus is coming to a feast—the wedding supper of the Lamb.

This is the feast we’re all hungry for
the deepest longings of our hearts,
the unspeakable yearnings that we try to satisfy
with food or sex or careers or applause or the next pair of shoes.

The message of the Church declares
that there is a day when our deepest longings—
our hunger—will be satisfied.

Because there is a day coming
when Jesus will bring the party.

Jesus is celebrating the ultimate marriage:
the union of heaven and earth—of God and humanity.

This is what Revelation is ultimately about—
this is what the meaning of all of our lives is ultimately about:

About all of us joining our Lover, the Groom of grooms,
in his unbroken banquet
—his eternal feast
of love and happiness and peace.

Which brings us to the our last question:
what does any of this matter for us?

The better question might be
what does this NOT have to do with us?

If we take John’s vision with any kind of seriousness,
all of this—all of these climactic images
have immediate, hourly implications for our lives.

One of the most immediate and primary being this:

[slide #4]
What are the areas where we settle for counterfeit Life?

The world we live in
is a lot like this passage today:

The Mother of Prostitutes”
is a lot more flashy and obvious
the Bride of the Lamb.6

In generation after generation, we find the Enemy at work
with tempting, alluring, seemingly beautiful knock-offs.

The Enemy is at work in the Empire of America
as much as he was in the Empire of Rome.

Holding before us a false life—a false bride—
a false way of being human.

Instead of true intimacy, true vulnerability, true loyalty,
(instead of true marriage between a man and a woman
as an embodiment of the sacrificial love of God)—
we’re offered counterfeits.

We’re offered flings, we’re offered Tindr, we’re offered pornography.

Verse 7 of chapter 17 is spot on:
it’s a golden cup that looks satisfying,
but it’s filled with sewage
and vomit and abominable things.

We’re hungry for True Life,
but what we get is more loneliness, more brokenness, more Death.

Our desire for intimacy is just an easy example—

we’re hungry for peace,
we settle for numbing the pain;

we’re hungry significance—to know our lives matter—
we settle for busyness;

we’re hungry for to be truly known,
we settle for applause and popularity;

we’re hungry for satisfaction,
we settle for the next big purchase.

We were made for the cup of salvation,
we settle for the cup of abominable things.

In countless ways that we’re only dimly aware,
we listen to the Enemy—we buy the lie—
we oppose the way of Love and march against God.

And chapter 19 ends with another sobering reminder
of what resisting God—of what hating Love—is like:

(19.17-21) And I saw an angel standing in the sun, who cried in a loud voice to all the birds flying in midair, “Come, gather together for the great supper of God, so that you may eat the flesh of kings, generals, and the mighty, of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all people, free and slave, great and small.”

Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to wage war against the rider on the horse and his army. But the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed the signs on its behalf. With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshiped its image. The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur. The rest were killed with the sword coming out of the mouth of the rider on the horse, and all the birds gorged themselves on their flesh.

[repeat of slide #4]

John begins tying up his loose ends,
because the great cartoonish beasts from the sea and the land—
are at last unmade by Jesus (v20).

And then there’s the picture of people of all who follow them.

The day when Jesus speaks Truth into the world (v21)
will be the day when all lives built on lies will be ruined.

The image—borrowed from the prophet Ezekiel7

is terrible enough to maybe just maybe wake us up:
there’ s a kind of life that will eaten by the birds.

That sounds like what we heard in chapter 17,
like Lady Babylon being eaten alive by evil.

This isn’t Revelation full of threats.
This is Revelation full of wisdom.

I think John is saying again—in a different picture—
that anyone or anything opposing the Lamb
is on path that’s already fallen.

And if we insist on this to the end,
God in his Love will give us what we want:
but it’s not going to satisfy our hunger.

It’s actually going to consume us.

There’s a huge difference between
the joining a feast
and being a feast—
between coming to Supper and being supper.

But that’s the startling significance
that God gives to our lives and our choices.

We can choose the true—the real, the way of love—
and join the feast with our True Lover.

Or we can choose the false—the counterfeit, the way of poison
and find ourselves consumed
by the hateful things we’ve chosen to love.

The good news is that we’re always being called to—
we’re always being welcomed to—
the real thing.

Our Lover cares for us more than we care even for ourselves,
and we are always always always welcome at his table.

May the Spirit stop our settling for Counterfeit Life,
and bring us safely to that Wedding Feast that will fill us fully;

may we hear the voice of our Groom
calling us out of despair, out of falseness, out of Death (cf. 18.4)
so we can be clothed
with what is real—with what will last;

may we hear the Romance of Revelation,
and know in our bones that the good news is true.

  1. By this point in Revelation, of course, John has begun to recognize the arrival of God’s reign in Jesus through the church’s witness and suffering, and has shifted the title to reflect that reality (11.17).
  2. This graphic imagery seems to be adapted by a story of judgment concerning Israel spoken by the prophet Ezekiel (16.15-19, 32-42).
  3. Embedded within economy of all empires is commodification of people as either institutionalized (or, in our century, functional) slaves (end of 18.13).
  4. The ultimate vision of both the psalms (e.g. Ps 2. 72) and the prophets (e.g. Isa 2.1-5, 11.1-10) envision a day when Yahweh and his “anointed one” (= Messiah, Christ, King) put an end to all wars. The way only way to wage war rightly (“with righteouness”) is to end all war.
  5. We were first introduced to robes dipped in blood in Revelation 7.14, where we’re told the victorious army of martyrs have washed their robes in his blood.
  6. As we approach the end of Revelation, the imagery introduced in chapters 11 and 12 returns with an invitation: “Become this Woman—become this Bride (12.1, cf. 19.8-9), become this City (Rev 11.2, 20.9 = 21.2), become this Tabernacle/Temple (11.1, cf. 21.3, 22).”
  7. Ezekiel envisions a decisive battle (39.17-20) where the birds will consume those hell-bent on resisting the God of Life.

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